Amazon unveiled a long-rumored “Netflix-for-books” digital lending library Wednesday. Via yet another enhancement for Amazon Prime, subscribers who also own Kindles can borrow one (and only one) book per month from about 5,000 available titles. Once borrowed, you keep the book for as long as you like — there is no due date after which DRM will cripple the file.
The official title of the program is the “Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.” It’s similar to the Amazon Prime Instant Video service, which likewise offers free streaming movies and television shows to customers who pay $79 per year for two-day shipping at no additional cost on most Amazon.com products. The library is another benefit to entice customers to spring for Prime membership, which in turn typically leads to plenty of extra shopping on Amazon.
Why isn’t it just called Amazon Prime Instant Library, then? Borrowed books can only be read on Kindle devices — not apps on computers, smartphones or those funny tablets (popular or otherwise) that aren’t made by Amazon. Remember: It’s “Buy Once, Read Everywhere,” not “Borrow Once, Read Everywhere.”
So in addition to an Amazon Prime subscription, the library is also an incentive to buy a Kindle. Thankfully, all generations of Kindle devices are included. Also, thankfully, someone drew the line at calling the thing “Amazon Prime Kindle Owners’ Lending Library,” even though that’s really what it is.
It’s also different both structurally and practically from public libraries’ e-book lending, which rolled out to Kindles in September. The books are licensed directly between Amazon and publishers, not through a library. There’s no limit on how many copies of the same title can be checked out at once; and there’s no due date.
Fair warning, though: if you were only going to subscribe to Amazon Prime to borrow books, it’s not a great deal. $79 annually works out to about $6.50 per month, and many of these titles don’t even cost that much to purchase outright as e-books and read everywhere. Amazon’s press release touts the inclusion of “100 current and former New York Times bestsellers,” but there’s a lot more “former” and a lot less “current” on that list.
As a fringe benefit to Prime, though, it’s solid. And it gives publishers a chance to generate some extra revenue from backlist titles, both directly through the lending program and indirectly, through the extra visibility borrowed books have for eventual purchase.
Amazon’s Russell Grandinetti told the Wall Street Journal that most publishers were receiving a flat fee for making their books available, while a handful (we’re guessing a few tentpole titles) are effectively being treated as sales, with the publisher receiving the same fee Amazon would pay if a customer bought the book every time it’s borrowed.
This isn’t about netting Amazon money up front as much as it is about establishing the program’s viability — to customers, sure, but especially to publishers. None of the “Big Six” publishers are participating in this go-around. In September, we wrote about why publishers were right to be wary of Amazon’s book subscription plans: nobody really knows yet what the right to borrow a digital book is worth.
If book subscriptions/lending works, though, the program has natural room to grow. Not only could it encompass more publishers and authors, but could also offer more kinds of content (periodical backlists, anyone?) or tiered subscriptions to permit borrowing more than one book at a time or reading on multiple devices. This is a new market: it could support several different models.
The real success, for both publishers and readers, will be if the prospect of lending fees entices more publishers to digitize more of the backlist. Think of all of those “I’d like to read this book on Kindle” titles that might not sell enough copies to support making available for sale alone, but which a flat-fee floor and Amazon’s desire to offer books by the tens of thousands might get moving again, the equivalent of old TV shows on Netflix.
A real digital library. Whether it comes from Amazon, Google Books or a government-funded Digital Public Library, I’ll take it where I can get it.